The hanging of the Tsilhqot'in Chiefs

October 26, 2014 will be the 150th anniversary of British Columbia’s martyrdom of the “Chilcotin Chiefs.”1 The “Chiefs” were hanged at Quesnel. The attending official estimated the mostly native crowd at 250 making this one of the largest mass executions in Canadian history. Why did British Columbia hang the “Chilcotin Chiefs” in 1864/65?

Ultimately, the conflict resulting in this martyrdom has its roots in Canada’s claim to sovereign authority on the Pacific Shelf. The Supreme Court of Canada dates this claim to the 1846 Oregon Treaty between Britain and the United States. That Treaty, made without notice to the area’s citizens, simply divided the signatories’ Euro-interests vis-a-vis each other, and below those of Russia, along the 49th parallel. Nothing more.

The long-established indigenous systems of governance and resource allocation throughout the Pacific Shelf continued legally in force the day after the Treaty equally as much as they did the day before. All indigenous powers retained their sovereign authority. No indigenous citizen gained any moral, legal or political duty to the British Crown as a result of the Oregon Treaty.

Since 1821, the laws of Canada had applied to relations between Europeans here and they continued to do so after the Oregon Treaty. Then, when Parliament created British Columbia on paper in London during 1858, it repealed the laws of Canada for this purpose and substituted the laws of England. Without first having consulted the citizen majorities in each indigenous territory, it would have seemed merely comical to have presumed to change their laws and constitutions. Nor does English or International law ever presume an absence of all laws.

And so, the day after British Columbia’s formal creation in London, the long-established indigenous systems continued in force as much as they had been the day before. All indigenous powers retained their sovereign authority. No indigenous person gained any moral, legal or political duty to the Crown as a result of the British statute creating the Colony of British Columbia.

Colonial officials, however, did gain duties: duties to the Crown, duties to prospective settlers and duties to the indigenous Peoples. It was in these officials’ approach to their duties where the problems began.

Although its prospective boundaries included Tsilhqot’in territory, British Columbia’s first government made no attempt at a treaty or to acquire some colour of property right before encouraging settlement there. Or before it began selling Tsilhqot’in land to settlers, collecting licensing fees and otherwise pretending to have extended its jurisdiction to this new territory. This violated the rule of law, British practice and the honor of the Crown.

Since no official of the Crown even visited the Tsilhqot’in before July 1864, the traditional laws necessarily and constitutionally remained the law of the land. Before then, no Tsilhqot’in can be considered to have gained any moral, legal or political duty to the British Crown. None.

The first prospective settlers came to Tsilhqot’in territory in 1861. They wanted to create roads and to provide services for travellers crossing to the new Cariboo gold fields. They saw these roads as the first step in a crossing to join with their friends in distant Canada. During summer and fall 1861, in meetings with Chief Anaham and others at Nagwentlun and with Chief Telloot in the Homathko Valley, private entrepreneurs secured Tsilhqot’in approval for two roads to the Fraser River, one from Bentinck Arm and one from Bute Inlet.

When these settlers began developing their projects in 1862, however, they would break faith with the Tsilhqot’in. Encouraged by Colonial authorities in Victoria, and perhaps not least of all by the coincidental actions of those authorities at Victoria, they would begin the greatest of all calamities. They began a series of artificially created smallpox epidemics.

Along the Bentinck Arm road, Francis Poole admitted knowingly sending smallpox-infected men into unsuspecting communities. Moreover, at the communities named by Poole, others associated with the Bentinck Arm Company would stake claims to the land under them while the residents were still dying. Poole said, “…for five or six days we were in hourly dread of attack from hostile savages” and that his party left behind “a sorrowful trail of blood” including one of its own. This seems a record of the first violence in what eventually became “The Chilcotin War.”

At Puntzi, where the proposed roads would intersect, land developers extorted possession of property that had been long-occupied by Taqed’s family with a threat to introduce smallpox. Then, according to a survivor, they did deliberately introduce the disease. A visiting settler put the death toll at 500.

Settlers spreading smallpox in Tsilhqot'in territory

In the colonial newspapers, it was said as common knowledge that, after the first epidemics, settlers at Bentinck Arm prepared smallpox blankets to begin new epidemics. This reference was made specifically about new epidemics begun in Tsilhqot’in territory.

At Tatla Lake, where the Bute Inlet road developers wanted the whole valley, a settler later admitted using just such a smallpox blanket to introduce the disease. All those in residence died but one.

Apart from the report by Poole, Tsilhqot’in parties were said to have killed three other settlers associated with the Bentinck Arm Company. This endeavour was controlled by Governor James Douglas’ legal adviser Attorney-General George Cary and associates of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Those not associated with the Bentinck Arm Company found the Tsilhqot’in peaceful, happy with their profits from packing and trading with crossing miners, and lifesavers to those in distress.

By January 1863, travellers said two-thirds of all the Tsilhqot’in had died in these artificially created smallpox epidemics. The dying continued into July. One settler put the death toll at 5000.

It was in this context that a new threat to introduce smallpox was made at Bute Inlet in March 1864. Settlers working on this road had also gang-raped a young girl, prostituted women for food, sexually and otherwise abused children, teased the hungry by throwing food to dogs, refused to provide food for Tsilhqot’in labourers and neglected to pay the customary tax for using Tsilhqot’in territory.

Lhatsassin was then said to have called a Council. It authorized him as “Head War Chief” to end the smallpox threat at Bute Inlet, to oversee the administration of Tsilhqot’in law to the Puntzi settlers and to expel all other settlers, pending official contact with British Columbia.

In the last week of April 1864, Lhatsassin and a small war party killed 14 settlers in a pre-emptive strike that ended the smallpox threat and the Bute Inlet road. Settlers and Lhatsassin himself put the total Tsilhqot’in involved in this war party at about only 14 or 15. His party suffered no casualties.

In the Interior, the offending Puntzi settlers were given opportunities to leave and offered due process under the laws. They refused. Taqed, whose family had been displaced at Puntzi, was then charged with executing the recalcitrant resident manager. Lhatsassin and a Tsilhqot’in party from Nimpo Lake large enough to fire a volley that a survivor said was about 50 shots intercepted the others there as they accompanied a pack train of goods and supplies. Only four of those Tsilhqot’in who had been at Bute Inlet were also at Nimpo Lake. The remaining two Puntzi settlers were executed at Nimpo Lake on May 30, 1864. One other settler and one Tsilhqot’in died in this event. Five innocent settlers were allowed to leave and later had their horses returned.

By June 1864, the roads were closed and there was no settler activity anywhere in Tsilhqot’in territory between the Ocean and the Fraser River, about 400 km.

Meanwhile, British Columbia launched what its new Governor called “an invasion” of Tsilhqot’in territory. Two militia groups, about 150 men, spent a month fruitlessly searching for the war party. They did burn homes at Puntzi and Sutless on Nimpo Lake, destroyed fishing equipment and otherwise hindered food gathering. According to the Governor, many more Tsilhqot’in then starved to death in winter. The only militia casualty was a former H.B.C. trader whom the Tsilhqot’in regarded as a leader of those who disrespected the People and the laws. They lured him into an ambush for execution.

Just as the Governor was making plans to withdraw in defeat, on July 20, 1864, the Tsilhqot’in sent a diplomatic party to his camp. This, finally, was their first ever formal meeting with B.C. officials.

In the negotiations that followed, Colonial agents soon promised a peace conference. There, it was said, the Governor would: one, recognize Tsilhqot’in leaders as the proper authority in their territory; and, two, absolve those who had killed settlers under the laws of the land still in effect, or while defending the integrity of Tsilhqot’in jurisdiction. They sent Lhatsassin a gift of tobacco in the usual way for signalling honourable intentions in a pipe ceremony.

Lhatsassin led a Tsilhqot’in party into a colonial camp on the morning of Aug. 15, 1864. But the Governor was not there. Instead, the Colony ambushed the Tsilhqot’in, put them in irons and took them to Quesnel for show trials. Colonial officials then began a false narrative that “The Chilcotin Chiefs” had surrendered, admitted guilt and submitted to the Crown’s jurisdiction.

Two more Tsilhqot’in meeting Colonial officials in good faith, to offer reparations under the traditional custom in case some innocents had suffered injury at Nimpo Lake, were ambushed and taken to New Westminster for trials in 1865.

None of these trials canvassed the obvious issues of justice or equity concerning jurisdiction, settlers creating artificial smallpox epidemics or “war not murder.” The defence counsel provided for “The Chilcotin Chiefs” at Quesnel actually had close ties to those believed to have spread smallpox.

In the result, British Columbia hanged four of the six Chilcotin Chiefs (Lhatsassin, Biyil, Taqed or Tah-pitt and Ahan or Kwutan) for applying their laws, the laws of the land indisputably still in effect, to the three settlers who gained the use of land by using smallpox at Puntzi. Another (Lutas) was convicted of murder in the third degree and pardoned. Colonial officials also said they pardoned Chief Anaham, yet he was not convicted of any crime.

British Columbia hanged Chayses for murder, and hanged Tilaghed or Telloot for attempted murder, for their part as warriors in the battle to prevent settlers from spreading smallpox at Bute Inlet or along the Homathko River. Another (Chedekki) was sent to New Westminster for retrial. He escaped on the way down. Also, at the first meeting with the Tsilhqot’in in July, the Governor had absolved Ulnas, an adviser to Chief Alexis, for his part in killing settlers at Bute Inlet.

Two others of those ambushed in August, and who had assisted in the former H.B.C. trader’s execution, were freed. They had not been the actual law enforcers firing the fatal shot. These, including Nezultsin, did not trust Colonial intentions and had declined to go in.

The Colony of British Columbia hanged the “Chilcotin Chiefs” as a collective punishment of the Tsilhqot’in for resisting the ethnic cleansing of their territory, for applying the law of the land to settlers and for defending the integrity of their sovereign authority. And as an instructive example to other indigenous Peoples, who constituted the great majority of those bearing witness at the hanging.

Colonial officials were also pretending to settlers that it was protecting their interests. But were they? It is hard to see how the Chilcotin War and hanging the “Chilcotin Chiefs,” lawfully brought about any legal or constitutional change to the locus of legitimate sovereign authority in Tsilhqot’in territory. Or created, for Tsilhqot’in citizens, any new moral, legal or political duties to the British Crown.

On the part of the Tsilhqot’in, any act of war was defensive. Not of aggression. It was against what they believed, accurately, was an exercise in ethnic cleansing, genocide. Does the rule of law, the honor of the Crown, or good political practise allow that anyone can lose their rights of self determination for that? The long-established indigenous systems of governance would seem to have continued in force the day after the last hanging equally as much as they did the day before.

The Tslhqot’in and immigrants of good faith are still paying the price for the malfeasance of these original colonial policies. And for the failure of officials at all levels of Canadian government to overcome British Columbia’s defective founding before now. These policies and the ongoing attitude of government officials have been a barrier to the free exchange of mutual benefits, which is the true foundation of civic duties and political obligations. The price has been paid in lost opportunities, mistrust, ignorance, sub-optimal allocation of both material and psychic resources, and, increasingly, legal fees growing at an exponential rate.

At this year’s Lhatsassin Memorial Day next Sunday, Oct. 26, British Columbia’s Premier is expected to begin the process of redressing the wrong done to the Tsilhqot’in through the execution of the “Chilcotin Chiefs.” The Premier is to be congratulated for opening the door to founding a new constitutional relationship between the still surviving host regimes on the Pacific Shelf, like the Tsilhqot’in, and their grateful guests.

  1. Documentary support for the material contained in this article can be found in Tom Swanky, The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific. (Dragon Heart, 2012.) Copies can be ordered at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Lulu and